My first New York City apartment was pretty dismal. My room could barely fit a full bed and a dresser, and the walls badly needed a fresh coat of paint. But what I remember most is that through those walls, which seemed to be made of construction paper, I frequently heard my neighbors going at it.
The sound of their bed springs screaming — er eek er eek er eek! — was the soundtrack to my first year in the big city. Thankfully, I’ve since moved out. But with “the horniest summer of all time” on the horizon, I have a feeling that many of us are going to be hearing those same squeaks and moans all season long.
As I began to read more about how randy everyone would be in the coming months as more vaccine shots went into arms (“gotta get vaxxed to climax, gotta get pricked down to get dicked down,” one internet poet tweeted), I began to notice a narrative that annoyed me more than my former neighbors ever did. It wouldn’t just be the new summer of love (making), but a season of sexual transmitted infections (STIs), outlets such as Telegraph UK predicted.
It wasn’t the predictions that bothered me — I’d talked to experts who agreed that a summer of increased sex could bring the potential for more STIs spreading. But the delivery got on my nerves. The “summer of STIs” was pitched as a sort of terrifying reality, one more thing to worry about after more than a year of staying inside to protect ourselves from COVID-19. And it felt shaming, too. After all, one in two sexually active people under 25 will contract an STI at some point, “ho girl summer” or not. Human papillomavirus will impact more than 80% of sexually active people in their lifetimes.
It’s true that some STIs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia — which, like the coronavirus, often spread asymptomatically — can negatively impact health, especially when left untreated. And, of course, education that encourages regular testing and safer sex practices is essential. But speaking about STIs in stigmatizing ways isn’t helping anyone, and in fact can keep people from getting tested or treated.
So before you start freaking out about the so-called summer of STIs, check out what the experts are saying about what the next few months mean for our collective sexual health.
Will it really be the summer of STIs?
Many experts agree that this will be the summer of sex. “I think there will be an uptick in sex because when you take away people’s autonomy and freedom and put restrictions on their behavior, they’re going to eventually go in the opposite direction,” says Emily Morse host of the podcast Sex With Emily. “After being locked down and social distancing for over a year, people are going all out and saying free love, free sex.”
But that doesn’t necessarily have to mean a summer of STIs, says Jill McDevitt, PhD, a sex educator and resident sexologist for CalExotics. Especially not if people implement safer sex practices. “Hopefully people can do it responsibly,” Morse agrees. “You can still be out there free-loving and make sure it’s not the summer of STIs. You prevent it.”
It’s worth noting that STI prevalence reached an all-time high in the U.S. for the sixth consecutive year in 2019, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released this month. Some experts have predicted these numbers will dip in 2020, since people weren’t dating or hooking up as much in quarantine. People may also have been avoiding non-essential doctors’ visits in the last year, and therefore were getting tested less often, Morse notes. But we don’t have the official CDC figures for 2020 yet.
How to stay sexually safe this summer
First: COVID-19. Before sleeping with someone outside of your household, ensure both you and your partner are fully vaccinated, or have followed the guidelines for unvaccinated people before seeing each other.
Then, before getting down to business, ask any potential sexual partners when they were last tested for STIs. This talk can be a little awkward, but it’s crucial. And luckily, we’ve all probably had some practice having tough conversations about testing and protection during the pandemic. “During the pandemic, we were forced to look at our health and be our own best advocates,” Morse explains. Now, we can bring this philosophy into our sex lives.
The idea that the pandemic may change how we approach safer sex conversations isn’t without precedent. The HIV epidemic, for instance, changed how people in the LGBTQ+ community, especially gay and bisexual men, talked about testing and history. As Anu Hazra, the director of STI services at the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, told BuzzFeed News: “I feel like a lot of cisgender, heterosexual folks were having discussions around status and protection and history, and asking these questions that I think a lot of queer folks have been comfortable asking for a long time around HIV and STIs.”
Morse suggests saying something like this: “Hey, this is a little awkward for me, but I’m trying to adopt a new protocol. I’ve been sexually healthy, I’ve recently been tested, and I’d be happy to show you those results. Can you share where you’re at with all this?” If your potential partner is not willing to share this information, you can choose not to have sex with them. “The more people have this conversation before sex, the more people will start to expect that this conversation is a requirement if you care about your sexual health,” she adds.
If you have an STI, such as HPV or herpes simplex virus, the conversation will be a little different. “You can say, ‘Listen, I want you to know I have herpes.’ Tell them if you have outbreaks at certain times of year, or only once a year, or if you haven’t had an outbreak in a long time. Say something like, ‘I know when it’s going to happen and take a daily suppressant, which makes it less likely for me to spread this to you, I just want you to know that. Do you have any questions?', Morse suggests. This can be nerve-wracking, because although HPV and herpes are common, they’re often misunderstood and stigmatized. “If someone has an STI that’s being treated, those people are often much safer to get in bed with than people who won’t even look at it or get tested,” Morse says. If someone’s a jerk about your disclosure, they’re probably uneducated on the topic — and, most likely, not worth your time.
“STIs are more common than we think, but what isn’t common is the conversations about it that will help us normalize it,” Morse adds. There will be times when people won’t be able to see past this issue, and that may be disappointing. But even in those cases, you can know that you’ve done the right thing and have prioritized your and your potential partner's health. Which is a win.
Finally, regardless of how this conversation goes, it’s also a good idea to use condoms or dental dams with new partners (until you’ve had a conversation about how to safely fluid-bond), to wash your sex toys after every use, to visit the OB-GYN regularly, and to get tested for STIs at least once a year (now’s a good time!). As a longer-term strategy, you can also protect yourself by getting the HPV vaccine, which is now available to folks up to age 45 and protects against the most dangerous strains of HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer.
What to know if you test positive for an STI
If you test positive for an STI this summer, you won't be alone. All it means is that “you’re human,” says Emily L. Depasse, a sex educator based in Pennsylvania. “But there are a lot of resources out there. If you’re feeling any shame or stigma, it likely stems from a place of miseducation.”
Be compassionate toward yourself, and take steps to re-learn facts about your own STI. Seek out fact-based resources. Depasse recommends the Something Positive for Positive People podcast-turned-nonprofit, the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), and the Positive Results herpes support group. It’s also worth listening to sex and culture critic Ella Dawson's TED Talk. Much of what we’re taught in media and in school (if we’re taught about STIs at all) sounds scary and can lead to unnecessary shame. “With learning, there’s often unlearning,” Depasse says. “You think it’ll never happen to you, and then when it does you’re like, ‘Oh crap.’ You go through an identity crisis, 'Am I this person?’ But know it’s not a determinant of who you are. It’s biology. And it happens.”
As we learned with COVID-19, shaming people does nothing to change behavior, and shaming someone for contracting an STI certainly doesn’t help anything either, Depasse says. If a recent sexual partner calls you and tells you to get tested, try to avoid pointing fingers. Get tested as soon as possible, and if you do test positive, follow your doctor’s treatment plan.
Whether the summer of sex ends up being real or not, remember that your STI status doesn’t define you — and that the more on top of your sexual health you are, the safer and happier you’ll be.